Exploring East Timor (2/2)

I woke up early on my second day in East Timor and said goodbye to Stefanie as I planned to catch the bus to Baucau, the country’s second largest town. Some people had warned me against taking their public transportation, suggesting that it was extremely uncomfortable. But as I was traveling alone, I had no other choice if I wanted to go outside of Dili.

at cape fatucama, in dili

I had the taxi driver drop me off at Becora, where buses to Baucau departed from. It was a dusty station located in a ramshackled part of town (I later came to realize that many of the city’s roads away from the center are nothing more than dirt tracks). I got there just in time as the bus, already filled up, was just about to depart. All the warnings about East Timor’s buses turned out to be true as passengers were stuffed like sardines inside the vehicle. I was seated in between a nun and a farmer, and could barely move. The rickety bus had no aircon and no other amenities aside from the speakers that blared loud, reggae-type Timorese music. Some passengers opted to stand the whole journey (3.5 hours) to pay half-fare while others stood by the (open) door, their hands clenched to the outside handles in the same way they do it with jeepneys in Manila. It was pretty remarkable they could handle it for three straight hours without ultimately falling into the roadside.

tour de timor mural at mercado municipal ruins

The bus had obviously seen better days, and it must have broken down ten times during our journey. For all its shortcomings, the ride included a lot of scenic views of jagged hills falling into the blue sea, rice fields and pastel-colored churches. We passed by several beaches that were more impressive than the ones in Dili, and it’s a shame I didn’t get the chance to stop by.

my bus to baucau… packed like sardines

One of the few passengers who could speak English chatted me up. A native of Mt. Matebian (East Timor’s 2nd highest peak), Atheno was taking a few courses in Dili. He also told me about his student days in Yogyakarta, Indonesia where he previously received a scholarship. He was a nice fellow, and offered to show me around Baucau when we landed. The bus dropped us off at Baucau’s new town, which is a drab area with no points of interest. We had to take a mikrolet (small bus) to the old town, where many interesting sights were located.

at the pousada de baucau, the town’s “poshest” hotel

I made sure to stop by the Mercado Municipal ruins – a fine example of colonial Portuguese architecture, Pousada de Baucau – said to be the most charming place to stay in East Timor as well as the natural spring located near the town center. I had lunch at Restaurante Amalia, probably the only place resembling an eatery in Baucau. After the meal, I parted ways with Atheno- he was going off to Matebian – and I was left alone in that strange town. I had planned to go to Osolata, a fine white sand beach 6km north of the town, but mikrolets were no longer running by that time in the afternoon so I just wandered a bit around Baucau. I had no idea where I was going to stay for the night. For $60, I found the Pousada to be above my budget. I managed to find a place to stay for $30 – still above my budget but it was the cheapest place I could find. The Albegaria Planalto was a simple 8-room hotel at the edge of a plateau and owned by a bishop. When I “checked-in,” I found out there only 2 other guests (both UN workers). I was the only tourist. The manager, Albert, was an amiable fellow. I rode his motorcycle that evening when I went back to Amalia in old town for dinner. It was a wonderful experience traversing Baucau’s zigzagged roads with the cool sea breeze.

staring at the sun in Baucau

The next morning I took off for Dili, onboard the dreaded bus again. This time it was worse. People freely smoked inside the vehicles and it was suffocating. The bus was once again packed like sardines, and to top it all off, a live pig was tied to the roof, squealing and shaking the whole time. I was so relieved when we reached Dili and I asked the driver to drop me off at Caicoli, near the city center. This time, I decided to stay somewhere better and checked in at Hotel Oriental. For $40 a night, I got an airconditioned room with TV but it was still way behind western standards as it did not even come with a toilet and the room only looked half-cleaned. I stopped at a nearby warung (Indonesian cafeteria) for a filling Padang-style lunch for only $2 and ventured to see the other parts of Dili after that.

the xanana gusmao reading room in lecidere

I visited the tais market, where they had local souveniers for sale. I also walked all the way to Lecidere, where the Xanana Gusmao Reading Room as well as Nobel Prize winner Bishop Belo’s residence are located. From there, I grabbed a cab to Areia Branca beach, about 8 minutes drive. Despite its proximity to the city center, the area was still relatively underdeveloped. A few beachside bars and huts were available and I was so relieved to see that it wasn’t over commercialized.

woman weaving tais

woman weaving tais

It was there that I chanced upon this nice Filipino family who were swimming by the beach. I knew because I heard them talking in Tagalog. We exchanged hellos and before I knew it, I was asked to join them. They were from Couples from Christ and they clued me in on the local situation. It surprised me to learn that there was a large Filipino community in East Timor. I was told that Dili had several Filipino restaurants (even beating Singapore). Since I was leaving the next day,   they even gave me an impromptu despedida (farewell party) right by the beach. I couldn’t have felt more at home.

at areia branca beach

I didn’t do much the next day as I was flying back to Bali that afternoon. Before leaving for the airport, I dropped by Arte Moris – an art gallery featuring works by local Timorese artists. The art mostly revolved around similar themes – agriculture, rural life and crocodiles (highly respected in Timorese culture). Arte Moris also doubles as a residence for these talented group of people, and one of them showed me around their studios within the many buildings inside. After this, I was off to the airport once again for my flight out of the country, leaving the dusty streets of Dili for now.

artist at work in arte moris

arte moris

All in all, I could say it was a unique trip. I wasn’t so much enamored by any scenery or historic building as I was with the warm people of East Timor. I believe the country is greatly misunderstood and deserves a visit by travelers doing the Southeast Asian trail. Although it does not offer luxury or comfort, it presents something different – and that is the discovery of a proud culture untainted by kitsch or mass tourism.



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